By Katherine Dykstra
My son, slapped red and squinty and no bigger than a sack of flour, was curled up on my chest, panting, shocked by light and air and breath. My husband Parker stood over us, tears rolling down his face. There was the sound of chirping monitors and the murmuring obstetrician and the metallic scent of blood against a sharp chemical sterility. As I tried to memorize my son’s face — searching violet eyes, sailboat mouth — I was overwhelmed by a feeling of strength. I did it. We had done it. The nurse pulled aside my gown and directed Arlo’s face toward my breast, touching the cleft between his nose and upper lip with my nipple. Eyes closed, he opened his mouth, latched, sucked. He reached up and pressed on my breast with his hand, which, fingers spread, was no bigger than a silver dollar.
“Look,” said the nurse, winking at me. “He’s helping.”
During my pregnancy I’d been amazed by how my body could build and feed and stretch to accommodate this tiny human, awed that I could trust it to bring him into the world. Now, this baby, minutes old, knew how to feed himself when I did not. Watching his hand knead my breast, I realized he and my body would be handling things without me.
Breastfeeding continued to be easy for Arlo. He latched, had a good suck, and gained weight. I, on the other hand, had milk blisters on my nipples and was engorged on the right side, my right breast looking and feeling like a rock. Each time he latched, I felt as if someone was driving a pocketknife into my breast. I gripped the pillow so I would not grip my son. So by easy, I mean, it was hard but tolerable. Motherhood was supposed to involve sacrifice, I thought. Milk blisters and discomfort weren’t going to stop me from breastfeeding, which had always been the plan.
Other mothers I knew had supplemented with formula when their newborns didn’t gain back their birth weight, or when they feared they weren’t producing enough milk or could no longer drag themselves out of bed every hour to nurse. Some decided to give up breast-feeding all together, their bodies too broken from pregnancy and delivery to endure one more assault. I didn’t judge them; only they knew what was happening with their bodies, their babies, but I felt proud to be breastfeeding.
My goal was to nurse Arlo until he was one year old. My mother had breastfed both my brother and me, and I knew that “breast was best.” I knew that by nursing I could pass on my immunities to Arlo. And I knew that breastfeeding would help my uterus shrink back to its original size, lessen feelings of post-partum depression and help me shed my baby weight. These are the reasons I started nursing. Why I continued, despite the milk blisters, engorgement and exhaustion, was something else.
In the weeks before I gave birth, I happened upon the psychologist Donald Winnicot’s concept of the “good enough mother.” Winnicott, maintained that to thrive, a child doesn’t need a perfect mother, only a mother who is good enough. But the first months of motherhood were hard in a way I wasn’t prepared for. Day to day, I barely felt good at all. I had never been on demand for so many hours and days and weeks on end. I’d never been responsible for another person’s bottomless need. I no longer recognized my body — misshapen and still throbbing from labor— or my life. I couldn’t decide whether or not to return to work, and I was lonely; the friends who had visited me in the hospital vanishing after a couple of weeks, back to their own lives and jobs and plans. I couldn’t go to yoga or work in my garden or read a book. And this little being, whom I loved more than I knew I was capable of loving anything or anyone, cried. A lot. The only way I seemed to be able to make him happy was by nursing. Nursing was the thing that evened the scales, weighted so heavily with all I felt was failing at, to “good enough.”
When Arlo was four months old, Parker was nominated for an Emmy, and we decided that rather than take Arlo with us to Los Angeles, my mother would fly to Brooklyn and babysit for the weekend. It would only be three days, no time at all, and, I reasoned, good for everyone. My mother was dying to spend time with her first grandson; Arlo would get to bond with his grandmother; and Parker and I could benefit from some time alone. I would get to be myself again — a woman who enjoyed picking her way through novels during long plane rides, who could stare out of car windows in new cities for hours, who enjoyed a glass of wine and the surprise conversation of a night among strangers — if only for a weekend. It would be easy, I thought, or at least doable.
My mother worried that Arlo might not take a bottle from her, but I knew that as long as milk was coming, Arlo wouldn’t be picky about the mode of delivery. I worried more about his sleeping, picturing them both awake through the darkest hours of the night. What I never considered was what would happen when I got back.
I prepared for the trip by pumping enough milk for Arlo to drink for three days. I asked the hotel in Los Angeles to put a freezer in our room so I could bring the milk I pumped while I was away back to New York to replenish my frozen supply. I even bought a cooler to take on the plane, where I also planned to pump. Naively, pumping on the plane was my greatest stress. I still felt uncomfortable nursing Arlo in public, convinced that everyone was watching. Pumping was worse. Unlike breastfeeding, which, I believed, was beautiful, pumping made my breasts look and feel like udders, something I didn’t want even Parker to see. In the end, aside from an attendant’s telling me with a raised eyebrow that I could pump as long as I was “discrete,” it went fine, no worse than having to use a port-a-potty. I noticed, though, that I didn’t pump as much milk as I had on my last morning at home, but I chalked that up to the stress of the flight.
I planned to time my pumping in Los Angeles so that I’d be free to go out to dinner with Parker and his coworkers and to the Emmy’s without having to excuse myself to pump, an ordeal that necessitated electricity, a bathroom and access to my breasts; the dress I planned to wear had a dozen tiny buttons running up the back. I pumped in the hotel, after loafing at the pool with an old friend, in the middle of the night and upon waking on Emmy day. With each pump, I noticed I was producing less and less milk, my breasts growing harder and more painful by the hour. In an attempt to stimulate let down, Parker cued videos of Arlo for me on his iPhone, “songs” the two had recorded together — Parker on the guitar, Arlo chirping along. By Emmy day I’d given up on the pump altogether and instead stood over the hotel sink manually expressing, watching my precious milk trickle down the drain. On the red carpet, my breasts felt like two gourds.
When Parker and I returned to New York, we’d been gone for less than 72 hours. I barely said hello to my mother and went straight for Arlo. I pulled him from his crib and nursed to relieve the pain. In 30 minutes my breasts went from heavy as kettle bells and bruise tender back to normal.
I sighed with relief, thinking everything was better, that this would be just a minor hiccup in our nursing story, until the following day. When Arlo and I sat down to nurse, he sucked, unlatched and began to cry, a confused wrinkle popping up between his eyebrows.
“What’s wrong, baby?” I asked and touched my nipple to his upper lip, stimulating him to open his mouth. Again, he sucked for a minute and pulled off, his face crumpling. I hefted him onto the other side. He began to scream. I felt my breast and found it soft.
As Arlo shrieked, I ran hot water over one of the frozen bags of milk I’d brought back from Los Angeles. When I presented it to him, he flew at the bottle, guzzling the milk like he hadn’t eaten in days.
This scene repeated itself every two hours as the day wore on. A knot in my stomach grew as it dawned on me that I’d made a grave mistake.
I phoned a lactation consultant, who informed me that while I was in Los Angeles, I’d effectively told my body that Arlo and I were done breastfeeding and that it should stop producing milk. She advised me to start taking fenugreek—an herb that has been known to increase milk supply — three times a day and to rent a hospital-grade pump and use it after every nursing session and then again in the middle of the night. When I asked her if my supply would come back, she said, “I have no idea. Rent the pump right now.
For the next two weeks, every time we sat down to nurse, Arlo ended up in tears, frustrated as I moved him back and forth between my breasts before going to the freezer to defrost more of our dwindling supply. We both reeked of maple syrup, the result of the fenugreek. I was exhausted, from the constant pumping, from getting up in the middle of the night, from worrying that I was starving my child. Both of us cried a lot.
As Arlo and I struggled, the refrain from so many — my mother, my doctor, my friends, even Parker — was that I should supplement with formula. This irritated me. I didn’t want a way out; I wanted my milk to come back. I had gotten through pregnancy and labor by trusting my body, by believing that it knew what to do, even when I didn’t. I was supposed to be able to feed my baby. But what was dawning on me was that my body did know better than me; after 72 hours without nursing it knew that there was no baby to feed. I believed my failure was my fault, for being selfish, for wanting what I’d had before, the freedom to go away for the weekend, for making the choice to celebrate with my husband baby-free. When those around me encouraged me to supplement with formula, I heard them confirming my darkest thoughts, that I couldn’t undo what I’d done and this was crushing. In my head, it wasn’t that failing to nurse would make me a bad mother so much as that nursing, if I could do it, was what made me a good one.
Suddenly I understood why the women I knew who’d stopped nursing did so. Before, a part of me didn’t believe that they’d tried hard enough. Everything I read said there was no such thing as producing too little milk. Your body met whatever demand your infant put on it. The more you nursed and the more you pumped, the more milk you produced. What this didn’t take into account was the incredible demand of constant pumping, constant feeding. A newborn eats every two hours, sometimes more, all through the day and night. Infants are good at nursing, but they’re not yet as efficient as they will be. It takes them longer. They fall asleep. They wake back up and want to eat again. It is hard. It is all a woman can do.
When a friend who gave birth three weeks after I did told me that she was going to give up nursing because her daughter wasn’t gaining enough weight — parenthood was a lesson in pragmatism was the way she put it — I supported her. Formula is a fine choice, I told her. Babies thrive on it. That’s what I believed then, what I believe now. Nursing certainly doesn’t have to be for every mother.
Early on, when our babies were teensy, my friend and I would walk to the park and meet a dozen other mothers who’d all had babies around the same time. We’d sit in the shade of a towering ash tree and talk about who was sleeping and who wasn’t and what carriers we preferred and how our bodies were healing. And when our babies started fussing, we’d pick them up and nurse them. A bunch of women sitting in a circle with their boobs out, was how I described it to Parker.
One day as we were leaving the park, my friend told me she hated being “that mom,” by which she meant the one pulling out a bottle amongst a sea of boobs. Her shame surprised me. How did anyone know she didn’t have breast-milk in that bottle? Plus, we all were doing whatever we could to get by. One mom confessed to sleeping her daughter on her stomach (forbidden); another said she turned down the monitor while she was trying to let her child cry it out. I confessed that Parker and I slept with Arlo in bed between us against the advice of every book I read and every person I talked to, including and especially our own doctor. That was the only way Arlo would sleep, so that’s what we did. Pragmatism. There was no room for any of us to judge. Which is what I told her.
Yet here I was harshly judging myself. I’d said that good enough was what I aspired to be, but now four months later I was wrapping up my entire success as a mother in whether or not I could continue to nurse.
Arlo and I were very lucky. All the fenugreek and pumping and crying worked. My supply came back and I was able to nurse him exclusively for another five months. But when he was ten months old, I went back to work and was once again faced with supply issues. I weathered them for a while, killing myself to produce, until one evening after Arlo went to bed and I tried to decide between pumping for the fourth time that day or sitting on the couch and having a glass of wine. It dawned on me that maybe good enough wasn’t the average of things I did that worked against the things I did that didn’t, maybe it was the average of the time I spent trying and caring and wanting to be a good mother with the time I spent trying and caring and wanting to take care of myself. The next day, we bought a tub of formula.
At a recent dinner with the same moms who used to sit, breasts out, under the ash tree, the woman seated next to me told me she was about to go back to work and she was concerned about where she would pump and if she would produce enough milk. I told her that I’d just begun to supplement. She shook her head, “I just don’t know if I can,” she said. “My mother nursed me. I just swore I would never give my baby formula.”
Of course, I’d once felt the same way, but in the wake of our trip to Los Angeles, even with my success getting back my supply, I’d begun to realize that I had to accept what my body already knew, that I could not live exactly as I used to, that the rigors of trying to be a person and a parent force choices and that it is easier, healthier even, to adjust expectations to realities than it is to feel constantly disappointed. For me, giving Arlo a bottle of formula a day turned out to be an enormous relief. He is 18 months old now and flourishing. I, too, am well. Or at least, good enough.
Author’s Note: Arlo is 18 months old now. Our nursing days feel like forever ago. But new challenges spring up all the time—I know there will be no end to the challenges of motherhood but I do my best to help us through the tough moments and, when what I try doesn’t work, I try to relax and readjust my expectations. I try to go easier on myself.
Katherine Dykstra is a nonfiction editor at Guernica. Her essays have been published in Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, Best and Shenandoah, among other publications.